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How to debate a moron—and what it can teach you about surviving at the office

September 26, 2016

He has referred to her as “crooked Hillary”. She’s described him as a “loose cannon” who is unfit to be President. She’s been a senator, First Lady and thus, the Establishment candidate. He was born a millionaire, was once a reality TV star and remains the darling of caricaturists everywhere. Tonight, finally. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will come face-to-face for the first Presidential candidates debate. What can we expect?

Walking a tightrope
Mark Twain once said, “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.” Hillary Clinton will have to confront exactly this challenge when she faces her undeniably populist (and frequently flat-out liar) opponent. How will she handle debating a moronic adversary who does not act in good faith?

In 2008, Joe Biden had to walk this same tightrope during the Vice Presidential candidate debates. This seasoned senator went head-to-head with surprise Republican nominee, Sarah Palin. How to underline Palin’s obvious inability to take high office without seeming paternalistic? How to point out the contradictions in her arguments without sounding condescending? How to defend his 35 years of public service without providing the Republican outsider with fodder for her cannon?

These questions are not only applicable to politicians facing antagonistic adversaries. After all, there are debates and persuasive arguments proliferating in conference rooms and corridors, as well as millions of online forums and comment sections every day. Here are some tips to help you walk the tightrope and avoid trip-ups.

Keep calm
It’s frustrating trying to reason with a moron, so the first rule is to stay calm. Take a step back, but don’t stop listening. Keeping your head cool will prevent you getting emotional or dropping down to their level. Although passion fuels great debate, control is more important. If you crack at the first stupid comment or attack, ask yourself whether you’re truly ready to lead this project, to be the company president or, scarier still, to have the nuclear codes.

Ask for facts and clarifications
If the devil is in the detail, then so it stupidity. When faced with outright lies, the best response is to ask for clarifications or facts that back the statement. More often than not, your illogical opponent will realize that he’s hit a wall and that his flimsy lies have been exposed.

Enjoy the silence
The moron’s greatest enemy is… his own stupidity. Your silence will give him more opportunity to sabotage himself and he’ll do a much better job of it than you ever could.

Don’t lose sight of who you want to convince
Debaters don’t change their position in mid-debate. Fuelled debate also tends to polarize the positions of those listening in. That’s why you must always concentrate your efforts on persuading the undecided. Hillary won’t be trying to convince Trump to vote for her. In the same way, don’t try to convince your adversary—rather, you want to convince other people involved in the decision-making process. To get there, you have to stay focussed and pursue arguments that will sway decision-makers, instead of throwing pot shots.

Change perspective
There’s an old saying that goes, “don’t judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree”. When you’re in a debate with someone who holds a completely different set of values and priorities, sometimes, a total paradigm shift is needed. The best way to win over your audience is to persuade them to accept your analytical framework. If they accept your goals and how to measure them, the probability that they will also accept your conclusions rises dramatically.

Make it a close one
Although everyone loves to see a technical knockout, it happens rarely. Not because it’s difficult to obtain, but because it’s dangerous for those in the ring. Watching someone pummel an opponent is seldom elegant. The cleanest win is not to hit someone when he is already down.

The challenge of scoring points, while still behaving respectfully towards your adversary, occurs in conference rooms, just as it does in the political arena. Although it may be tempting to capitalize on momentum or to pounce on the weaknesses of others to score that point, never lose sight of your goal to convince, not conquer. Despite our occasional appetite for absolute triumph, we have to remember that today’s fight won’t be the last and that being aggressive (even towards a moron) may further pit your colleagues against you. That’s why it’s sometimes best to take your hard-won battle, let your adversary graciously walk away and conserve your energy for the next fight.

What to watch for tonight
The best debater is a true judoka; someone who uses his adversary’s strength against him to score points. Someone who transforms an opposing argument by underlining its limitations, re-contextualizing it and pointing out its contradictions… But also someone who manages to score points, while still being noble and playing clean.

During Hillary Clinton’s performance tonight, we’ll have the opportunity to observe several basic tactics at play and, it’s too be hoped, some quotable quotes and lively remarks for the history books. Enjoy.